sat 25/05/2024

First Person: The lure of the lost play | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: The lure of the lost play

First Person: The lure of the lost play

As Rattigan's debut is staged after 80 years, its director ponders the rise of the rediscovery

'First Episode': poster image for the Jermyn Street Theatre's production of Terence Rattigan's first play

About a year ago, Alan Brodie, who is the agent for the estate of Terence Rattigan, sent me a handful of his more obscure plays. I had worked with Alan before on a revival of Graham Greene’s first play, The Living Room, so he knew I had a penchant for what are now termed "rediscoveries".

The play that jumped out at me was Rattigan’s theatrical debut: a comedy called First Episode. Written while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford in 1933 (co-authored with his friend Philip Heimann), it seemed to me a fresh, funny, and painfully honest account of his experiences there. A little research confirmed my first suspicions – it is heavily autobiographical, based on a series of real-life events from Rattigan’s own student experiences. It also had one other huge appeal. It hadn’t been seen anywhere in the world for 80 years.

It’s a young writer’s play: imperfect, emotionally raw, sketching out ideas which will later become tropes of his mature work. But it also has bags of charm, writing about what it’s like to be 22 years old in the way that only a 22-year-old can. For me it had a dual appeal. It was fascinating for any admirer of Rattigan’s work, but it also functioned on its own terms as a play of the early 1930s, particularly in its frank treatment of the sex lives of the undergraduates it portrays.

Why stage such a play now? When I started working as a director on the London fringe in 2006, the term "rediscovery" was not so widely used as it is now. The brilliant and inexhaustible Neil McPherson at the Finborough in Earl's Court was – and probably still is – the noisiest champion of the rediscovery, regularly turning out gems of plays which hadn’t been seen for decades. Sam Walters at the Orange Tree in Richmond was similarly exploring the neglected corners of, particularly, the late Victorian and Edwardian repertoire. But by and large, the fringe was a place for new work.

The rewards of producing rediscoveries are nearly outweighed by the challenges

Over the last decade, rediscoveries have become a staple of the fringe, and have started to influence the programming of the mainstream as well. There is an audience for rediscovered plays. When I revived Stephen Sondheim’s first musical, Saturday Night, in 2009, it enjoyed a dream reaction. It began at Jermyn Street Theatre, recently something of a rediscoveries powerhouse, before transferring to the Arts Theatre. Partly, being set on 1929 Wall Street, it caught a zeitgeist of the post-Lehmann Brothers crash. But mostly fans of Sondheim came out to see something they’d not caught before. It’s particularly exciting to see an early work by a known composer or writer. Sondheim refers to Saturday Night as his "baby pictures", but when he came to see our revival he was delighted to see a packed house responding wholeheartedly to his 24-year-old's efforts. Just sometimes, a rediscovery proves so successful that it takes its place in the canon of regularly revived plays – think Journey’s End or An Inspector Calls.

The rewards of producing rediscoveries are nearly outweighed by the challenges. They are ferociously difficult to fund. They’re not new work, so all the money earmarked for new writing is unavailable. They’re not classics, so they’re not good for corporate funding or private patrons either. Over the years, my company, Primavera, has painstakingly built relationships with a handful of people with a passion for more off-the-beaten-track quarters of the repertoire, but it’s not easy. Rediscoveries are also hard to cast. Ring a theatrical agent and offer their client Lady Bracknell, and there’s a fair chance the agent will have heard of the play and the part. Try that with a leading role in a rediscovery and it’s a much tougher proposition. Everyone is taking a gamble on something pretty unknown. Audiences, though keen to make new discoveries, are cautious: they wait for good reviews before booking a ticket, whereas if Hay Fever is on, they can make a judgement long in advance. So it’s financially perilous every time.

Fashions change. Plays may lie neglected because they failed on a first outing, or because their writer has fallen from public or critical favour. Rattigan probably didn’t help his cause by appearing to pick a fight with the Angry Young Men of the Royal Court in the 1950s. Still worse was his satirical invective against his own audience – "Aunt Edna", as he termed the ladies who came up from Surrey to see matinees of his plays. So for over a generation of theatregoers Rattigan’s reputation was as a fusty, polite dramatist. A now-legendary revival of The Deep Blue Sea by Karel Reisz at the Almeida in 1993 began the resuscitation, but it wasn’t until the centenary of Rattigan’s birth in 2011, which saw a cluster of star-studded revivals, that he really came roaring back into the public domain. Now a new generation of actors and theatregoers are discovering a Rattigan who seems urgent and vital; however well he may chronicle the fabled "stiff upper lip", Rattigan’s plays actually speak from the heart in a way that, in the language of the 1930s, can be genuinely shocking.

In one critical respect, we can be confident that our revivals today are closer to Rattigan’s intentions than the original productions were. In the absence of a Lord Chamberlain waving a blue pen over the more scandalous sections of Rattigan’s texts, we can now perform Rattigan’s work uncut. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to Rattigan. When I worked for Peter Hall on Coward’s The Vortex at the Apollo in 2008, we discovered a few lost lines suggesting a lesbian subtext between Florence and her close friend Helen. We were able to reinstate those lines, long cut by the Lord Chamberlain, adding rich ambiguities to the plot. Dan Rebellato, who has edited the text of First Episode, has likewise reinstated virtually all the material originally censored. The result is a play which is far more explicit in its treatment of sex, and particularly of sex between men.

For me there’s no essential difference between rehearsing a rediscovery or any other play. George Devine – who was a contemporary of Rattigan’s at Oxford, and is part of the inspiration for one of the characters in First Episode – had a well-known maxim at the Royal Court about doing "new plays like classics, and classics like new plays". A rediscovery is neither a classic nor a new play, but it’s much closer to the latter. Sadly, Rattigan isn’t around to help out with our rehearsals. But the process – fine-tuning the text, mining the characters, finding the jokes – is pretty much like working on a new play. And as audiences settle into their seats to enjoy (or not) Rattigan’s debut drama over the next month, it’s a huge thrill to be introducing them to a new, old play.

  • Tom Littler is artistic director of Primavera and a freelance director
  • First Episode at Jermyn Street Theatre until 22 November and then the Simpkins Lee Theatre, Oxford, on 28 and 29 November
We can be confident that our revivals today are closer to Rattigan’s intentions than the original productions were

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